Shearwater: the interview

a conversation with Jonathan Meiburg

As one of the most influential bands in my life, Shearwater inspired me to be part of music, to start a record label, to learn how to take pictures at shows, and to write about records (not as a critic, but more as a “music documentarian,” to borrow a term from Peter Guralnick). I first saw Shearwater perform live in Seattle not long after the band released “Animal Joy” (Sub Pop Records, 2012). I saw them again at The Crocodile in Seattle (25 March 2016), which provides much of the background I explore here.

Preparing for my conversation with Jonathan Meiburg, I laid out all of my Shearwater records on my dining table, grouping them by label (LPs carry the same power to live in the heart, as books do, the ancient, human connection between physical objects and memory.) Jonathan I talked about how hard it is for bands like Shearwater to keep making records, and to tour to support them.

Every new record, from here on out in this age of streaming, in this age of music as “content,” should be seen as a miracle of human creativity, endurance, and commitment.

Shearwater at The Crocodile, Seattle, 25 March 2016

Let’s go back in time, just a little bit. I noticed some things changing, and I think I noticed it because you talked about it, at one of your shows, at the Crocodile in Seattle. I was there. This memory reaches back to around 2016. David Bowie passed away in January, 2016.

Jonathan Meiburg:
Oh, where we did “Lodger.” That was one of the two or three times we did that.

GP:
That show was extraordinary because not only did you do your full set, but then you stopped, you talked for a little bit, and then you did the complete “Lodger” record. It was a real treat to see these two massive performances.

JM:
Well, I wanted to give people a chance to leave if they’d had enough for the evening. I usually don’t want to see more than an hour of my favorite band on earth.

GP:
I don’t think anybody left!

JM:
No. It was full. That was a really fun night. In fact, a lot of the live recording we issued later on “The Sky Is a Blank Screen,” from that tour, came from that show.

GP:
One of the things I remember you saying, the reason you did “Lodger,” and started looking at Bowie’s work, was that you had had a really hard touring year in 2016. Or, there were health issues? There was something in the air. Things seemed to be changing a little bit. Given the industry at that time.

JM:
I wish I had a clear-cut answer for you about that. That was, as I recall, fairly late in that tour, so we were probably very tired. [Laughs] Which makes a difference! We’d have just come driving in. I think we did that big drive where you jump off from Minneapolis and hold your breath until Seattle. But in terms of the industry changing, what are you getting at?

GP:
In 2015/2016, that’s really when music streaming kicked in big time. And the numbers were radical. By the end of 2016, the sales revenues were upended, in terms of record sales and streaming. It coincided with a time when bands seemed to me to be working harder and getting less.

JM:
Yes, that’s certainly true. That finally reached a tipping point for us with Loma, the band I started with Emily Cross and Dan Duszynski. Tours had always just scraped by for Shearwater for years and years and years. And with Loma, it was our first tour, as a new band, which I expected would mean we’d be set back a bit in terms of what we’d be able to bring in as a tour. But to do a tour of the U.S. and Europe, it bled. It lost so much money that we ended up having to crowd-fund our way out of a hole by the end of it. Because all of our projections had hit the lowest possible nth of what we could possibly make out of the shows.

Now, that’s just a single data point. That could just be that people didn’t want to come and see our band. But the thought I had was that, if this is happening to us, and we’re on Sub Pop, and we have good representation, we have a good booking agent, this has got to be happening to more than just us. It’s like it’s becoming impossible to do this. And that was what really pushed me into a different way of thinking about how we were going to be able to survive, making music for an audience.

Especially because I knew the audience was there. That’s the thing that’s really puzzling. For instance, for Loma, Loma had a song “Black Willow,” which got more attention than pretty much any Shearwater song, ever. It got more than a million streams on Spotify. Brian Eno called it his favorite song of 2018. And yet, this just doesn’t translate into anything.

When you look at Spotify, as far as money goes, you look at what Spotify or other streaming services actually pay, assuming you controlled all the rights to a recording, the publishing, the master, everything, if you had 20 million streams on Spotify or something, then you’d get $80,000. Twenty million streams is a lot! I mean, for me to even listen to a song a million times would take me years, just one song.

And these are the kinds of numbers you’re faced with, where for a million streams, something like $4,000 gets paid out. In that kind of system, the only people who can really make any money at all are routinely streaming in the millions and millions of numbers. And that’s just never going to be most bands, no matter what the Spotify brass says.

A rising tide doesn’t really lift all boats, in this case. It lifts the smaller boats only a very, very small amount.

Jonathan Meiburg

From my sense of the “layperson’s fantasy of bands,” I always assumed touring was the way bands would survive. Is that true?

JM:
Oh man. Not necessarily, no. That’s funny. People always ask, as if there’s some hidden secret that they’re going to find. And you say…“Well, the record sales really don’t make money for bands anymore, very much….” Then they go…“Oh, OK, but then it’s all in touring, in live performance, right?” Nope. “Then it’s in film and TV licensing, right? I’ve heard you can make a lot of money in that!” Nope. And they just look at you, like they’re waiting for the punch line, or something. And there’s no punch line.

Shearwater, March 2016

GP:
I think of Shearwater as a kind of road-dog band. You guys go out, and it’s like this campaign. In fact, Loma, well, it’s a different thing, you guys got stuck somewhere, right? In Europe?

JM:
[Laughs] Stuck? Oh yeah, there was a venue that got flooded in Italy, and we ended up having to set up house shows in Switzerland, and we were driving around Switzerland. It was very strange. After a few days, you wonder…“Who are we? Why’d we end up here?” This weird, expensive camping trip, but not that comfortable. Those experiences can be really fun, but it’s less fun when you do all that, and at the end of it you owe a lot of money. [Laughs]

Often the way that record labels would set up tour support, because sometimes they do pay out what’s called “tour support” to help you meet your expenses on the road, usually those expenses, even when they do offer it, and they don’t offer it to everybody, don’t include or expressly forbid you to include any amount that you might pay the musicians in the band, I think, on the idea somehow that those people are going to get paid through royalties or something. But Shearwater hasn’t made a dime on record royalties since 2005. I mean, that’s just never going to happen.

And the budgets on our records weren’t huge, but they were enough that at the recoupment rates of the contracts and things we had, we’ll just never hit those numbers. Shearwater will never make a dime of royalties off of Sub Pop or off of Matador. Unless something really strange happens. That’s not to say that Sub Pop or Matador are bad labels or bad people, or anything like that. These contracts were made for the days when sales were much higher.

GP:
I wonder if labels are feeling the loss of revenue, too. Even labels like Sub Pop. Cutting back on promotion, swag, things like that.

JM:
I mean, I wouldn’t be surprised. There used to be a lot more money for everybody in selling records than there is now. They’re trying to figure out how to deal with that. We all are. I was talking with Jonathan Poneman the other day, who brought us into Sub Pop and has really very kindly supported us now, supported our participation in the label and believed in us now for years, I was talking to him about the Shearwater crowd-fund of the new record. And he said this is really interesting, because it’s sort of like it’s going toward a model that’s more like the art world. Where you have a smaller amount of people paying a larger amount of money for things.

Now, the commercial nature of the art world is not something anybody particularly envies. [Laughs] It’s undemocratic, and it’s awful. I mean, it’s as far from punk rock as you can go, in some ways. And we all kind of hesitate to let go of that, because the punk idea was always that your music would be… that everybody could afford to have it. Or rather, everybody could afford to buy it. Not everybody could afford to have it. [Laughs] Because it’s free!

If we’re going to use our imagination to make the music, we’re also going to have to use it to figure out how to sustain it.

JM

As a recording artist, how do you feel about streaming? You’ve created this extraordinary library of music, all these beautiful artifacts, with Matador, with Sub Pop… Now streaming has come along and it threatens your ability, the reality, of you being able to make these amazing records, these artifacts.

JM:
Under the traditional system, yes, absolutely. Which is why I’ve come to the conclusion that it just doesn’t even work anymore. But the idea of trying to just blast yourself out to as many people as you possibly can, do as big of a publicity blitz as you can afford to do, do as big of a tour as you can bear, in the hope that somehow you’re going to be able to latch on an get a hundred thousand people to buy your thing, it’s just not a realistic goal. It might happen to somebody, but that’s just not something you can do.

Streaming…there’s nothing we can do about it. It’s here. It’s going to stick around until the next world confrontation in which countries shut the internet down. So, I might as well complain about the weather.

I’ve been lucky enough, through a couple of different crowd-funding things. I started this year with a huge lump in my throat, because I’ve always been discouraged from doing that. Sometimes by the labels, sometimes by friends. And sometimes just by the feeling that it was kind of like a way of going…sort of musical panhandling. There’s sort of a stigma attached to it for me. It’s like…“Oh well, if you can’t really hack it, then you might crowd-fund your record.”

But that’s stupid of me. [Laughs] To think that way. And I finally overcame that. When I held my breath and shut my eyes and put my hand up to these things, I was astonished at how much support we were able to get from it. Not from thousands and thousands of people, but you don’t need thousands and thousands of people. If you’ve got people who pay you, say, $10 a month. I mean, if I could convince 800 people to pay me $10 a month, then I could get that same $80,000 a year I’d get from twenty million plays of my thing on Spotify. It seems easier to convince 800 people of something than twenty million!

But to get that number of people, to get 800 people who care about your work, and you and what you do, enough to be able to do that though, somebody might argue that’s like, well, you’ve got to reach a couple hundred thousand people before you can find those 800 golden people who are going to be that stalwart for you. All the same, I just managed to get together the largest record budget I’ve ever had out of a number of people you could fit into the Bowery Ballroom.

Shearwater, March 2016

GP:
So how did you get past that? That stigma?

JM:
Desperation! Pure and simple. [Laughs] It was that or stop doing it. There are certain things that I’ll joke about that I’ll do, if it’s between that, or living on the street. Or realistically, that or just not playing music anymore. So, at some point I hit that on the list. But what surprised me was how easy it was, how willing people were to make it relatively easy to do. In that sense, having a small audience can be really beautiful. That believes in you that much, if they’re willing also to support you. And you don’t need that much. I mean, you don’t need millions of dollars to make records, or to live, or anything. But you also need more than nothing!

I think there’s some sense, especially now, that it’s easier to record and create music, in some ways cheaper, certainly, than ever before. But that doesn’t mean it’s free. And the main thing, you’re still going to have to deal with talented people, and work with talented people, and it’s going to take time. Those two things are going to cost money, no matter what the recording medium is. And what surprised me is that people, when you ask about that, people are willing to believe that that is true.

I don’t need to be famous; I just need to be not broke.

JM

It’s a very intimate process, in a way that the previous model of working with labels wasn’t.

JM:
Absolutely! There were only three ways of interacting with bands: One was you went to a show, or you heard them on the radio, or you wrote away to join the fan club, or something. Bands are so much more accessible now. I don’t have any hard numbers to support this at all, I just have a general feeling that the small-club show and the small-club scene, at least within the United States, is dwindling. Because you can stay home and watch Netflix! You can reach out to the band and interact with them over their webpage. You can see videos whenever you want to. The access isn’t limited in the way it once was.

I keep noticing that in the sort of small clubs of America that I’ve been spending my performing life in over the last almost 15 years, like, none of the PAs are getting upgraded. [Laughs] The club in Chicago where we’ve played many times, that I really like, but…that PA has a terrible buzz in it, and it has had since 2006. It’s like, come on guys! And I just have a feeling that it’s just not a place people feel so compelled to go to anymore. You don’t have to go there to get what you want out of a band.

GP:
Does that mean you won’t be looking for another label as “home” for Shearwater? Have you turned the corner to something different?

JM:
Exactly, yeah. If suddenly I had a song that was streaming millions on Spotify, and I didn’t have an album, or something like that, and people were coming knocking and bidding over each other and stuff, at that point I might be able to do something like that. But that’s probably realistically never going to happen to me. And that’s fine.

The only reason you want a giant audience is to pay you, unless you’re just an egomaniac. But if you don’t need a giant audience to get paid enough do the thing you want to do, then great, let’s just work with a small one. I’ve always admired what Phil Elverum did. Because that was the calculation he made, it seems to me.

GP:
So now you have to wear all the hats. In the past, you could be the artist and make the music, but now you have to be your own label. Will that be a new experience, or have you been doing some of that along the way already?

JM:
I think what I’ve slowly learned…we were working with a really good record label…you can’t just sort of let it run on autopilot. Or, even just do what they tell you. I went through a phase of trying to do all the things that they asked, you know. You have to stay in the process and understand what’s happening more. For Shearwater, we have a small team of people I’ve worked with over the years, who are not part of any record label, or anything, who are just friends of the band, without whom we couldn’t function at all.

We have a man named Jonathan Kade, who started as a kind of fan of the band helping us out with one thing or another. Now he basically operates our email lists and is in charge of all things having to do with our online presence, and sales, that kind of thing. And Emily Lee, who’s in the band, also manages a lot of our social media. We’ve created a team that’s sort of mindful of all these things. But then there are people like, for publicists and that kind of thing, you really have to pretty much hire out for that.

Although you can do it on your own. I’m intrigued by the idea. If you’ve ever tried to book a tour, it’s nearly impossible. It’s just so hard to get to do that on your own, partly just to even get people to return your emails or phone calls, unless you have a booking agent who’s sort of plugged into all of this. But at the same time, there might be a less conventional tour where you just do a smaller number of shows that you really work on to make sure that they’re good. Every time I did that in Austin, where I really took it upon myself to try to make sure that everything was being plugged and promoted and all that kind of thing, the shows always turned out way better. I think in some ways it’s not really that different, you still have to keep your eye on it yourself.

And the record labels, if you’re lucky enough to work with one, they have resources they can decide, or not, to use, but sometimes you have to be aware they exist, and ask for things, too. Because they might not necessarily have that in mind for you. And their attention span is pretty limited. Your record comes out, the Eye of Sauron turns towards you for a couple of weeks, and they see how the first week did, and they can kind of project from their experience what they think it’s going to mean from then on, and if it’s not going to be that great then… they kind of start to wander away in a short period of time. Meanwhile, you’ve got four months of touring left to go.

I remember Shearwater got a really bad review on Pitchfork, for the “Animal Joy” record, I think, that was like three weeks into the tour at that point, staring down another six months, or something, of touring, and I was like…Oh my god, there went any chance for this to be some kind of breakout thing. And we ended the year in debt. And I knew it months before when the tour had ended. So, it’s really on me if that’s the model that I keep subscribing to. If I’m that much of a glutton for punishment, maybe I should try something else.

Shearwater, March 2016

I’d like to say that I think “Animal Joy” is a brilliant record. So, how do you keep your band together? You have an extraordinary band. You have two extraordinary bands. How do you keep it together?

JM:
Well, it helps to go just record to record, and tour to tour. I think you have this fantasy, or least I did, when you first start a band, that you’re going to be in a band together. And that’s going to be your band, and you’re together for life. Realistically, most of that time, that’s usually not going to provide a reasonable living for everybody. Or people get bored. Or they don’t like the way the music is going. Or they have a kid. All kinds of things can happen. I used to fight that so hard.

Once I started to let go of that, and just sort of think of it on a more project-to-project basis, it actually got much better. The result in Shearwater…now, the band is basically me, because I can’t quit. And then whoever I work with. But if it’s going well with the people that I’m working with, and they want to keep doing it, then we’ll keep working together. But I had to make it a looser outfit, and very top-down, where I kind of call the shots.

Loma was deliberately conceived of as more of a democracy. There are sort of three main decision makers: me, and Dan, and Emily. The nice thing about three people is that it’s always two against one, or you all agree. It results in decisions and not stalemate.

The answer, in a way, is I don’t keep it together. I let it be. I give it the opportunity to remain together. But I also let things, people and relationships, flow through it. And have their natural lifespan, whatever that is.

I don’t know where you start from zero now.

JM

So, I’m looking at this body of your work, all these beautiful LPs in front of me. What’s been the most heartbreaking part of this time, as a musician, as a recording artist?

JM:
Commercially speaking?

GP:
Yes. I mean, do you hate that your fans might be turning to streaming instead of buying your records? What’s that like?

JM:
No! I’m honestly amazed that so many people have reached out to me over the years, that my records meant something to them in one way or another. I never get tired of hearing that. Because the thing is, I didn’t do this because I wanted to make a bunch of money, thank god, because if I did, I’d be a really miserable person. I did it because I wanted to communicate with other people. That’s the main consolation of an audience, in some ways, it makes you feel, as a performer, that you’re not alone out here. As a fan of other artists myself, that’s how they make me feel. That’s how my favorite artists make me feel, is that I’m not alone in all this. That we’re together, that we’re united in some way, even if we haven’t met. The chance for that connection is still there.

The way that it can be finally sustained, whether the middle men of record labels is going to be required or not in the future, is kind of an open question. I don’t think they know. I wish I had an answer, because even though I’ve been able to step away from that now, or sort of take a step off the cliff, I’ve had 15 years of working within that system. Even in the tours where I’ve gone into debt, at least there was some kind of infrastructure in place for me to try to push it out there to reach the people who would like it.

GP:
What gives you hope, for this next chapter that you’re beginning?

JM:
Usually, just in the fact that the more honest and direct the songs and the material that I’ve made can be, the more that I feel that it touches the core of what I’m trying to do, the more people have responded to it. Trying to trust in that is very powerful.

I worked with Jamie Stewart on a record some years back that pretty much everybody hated, although I loved it. We made it in just a week. It’s called “Blue Water White Death.” We made up all the songs on the spot and recorded it with John Congleton. That is a nutty record. I loved it, though, because we were absolutely working with that, artistically speaking.

Jamie and John and I were at dinner one night, and they were talking about the fact that if you make something that is very extreme, obviously I wouldn’t call Shearwater’s music extreme, it’s maybe “particular” but not “extreme,” in the way that Jamie’s is…I mean, if you want to talk about a brave performer, that guy is incredible. A friend of mine saw his show the other day in New York, and I asked how it was, and he said “raw and weird.” And I thought…“God, Jamie’s been on the road 20 years, do you know what it takes to be able still have people call your shows ‘raw and weird’ after 20 years?” But both of them said that if you really go for something, you really really go as far out as you can, there will be an audience. Now, not necessarily a big one, but there will be one. [Laughs] And you can kind of trust in that in a certain way. And Jamie trusts in it completely.

I exchanged emails with Jeff Mangum years and years ago about something, and he said if you make something that is meaningful to you, it will be meaningful to others like you. Of course, that doesn’t guarantee how many of those there are. There may not be many people like you. But there are aspects of yourself that you have more in common with other people, I sort of think of it that way. The more you can lean into that, and trust in that, that they will ultimately be there.

Almost no matter what your band is, you’re going to be somebody’s favorite band. That won’t pay your bills, but it might change that person’s life! [Laughs]

Karmically worth it, but you still got to eat.

Shearwater, March 2016